The great goal of the Christian life is to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. The Christian longs to be influenced by Christ to such an extent that every thought is one Jesus would think, that every action is one he would take. Such conformity depends upon a renewed mind, for it is only once our minds are renewed that our desires and actions can follow (Romans 12:2). The Christian life, then, is one of taking off the “old self with its practices” and putting on “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:9-10).
So noble a goal can only be achieved with great effort and lifelong commitment, for we are sinful people, only recently liberated from our captivity to the world, the flesh, and the devil. The Christian life is not a leisurely stroll but a purposeful journey. Jesus tells us we must “strive to enter through the narrow door,” knowing that the Christian life permits no complacency, that salvation must be “worked out,” not waited out (Luke 13:24; Philippians 2:12). The Christian is not a passive spectator in sanctification but an active participant.
We are looking at “8 Rules for Growing in Godliness,” a series of instructions for becoming increasingly conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. (Here’s the Introduction to the series.) The first rule for growing in godliness is this: Trust the means of grace. Every Christian is responsible to diligently search out and discover the disciplines through which God grants increased godliness. Then he is to make a lifelong, whole-hearted commitment to each of them.
How Do Christians Grow?
With spiritual growth comes increased knowledge of God, trust in God, and conformity to God. The one who had little knowledge of God’s works and ways comes to know them both deeply. The one of weak faith comes to have immovable trust. The one who was depraved in desire and behavior comes to display Christ-like character and conduct. Such growth leads inexorably to delight, for to know and to imitate God is to enjoy him.
How, then, can we experience such an increase in knowledge, trust, conformity, and delight? Primarily through what we call “means of grace,” disciplines through which God communicates his sanctifying grace to us. While there are many such means, we can summarize them under three headings: Word, prayer, and fellowship. They are experienced in private devotion, family and corporate worship, and whenever we are with other Christians. Though growth may come through other means, God promises growth will come through these ones. J.C. Ryle speaks of their importance when he says, “I lay it down as a simple matter of fact that no one who is careless about such things must ever expect to make much progress in sanctification. I can find no record of any eminent saint who ever neglected them.”
Christians have often referred to these activities as the ordinary means of grace. The word ordinary is meant to address the common temptation to lose confidence in the means God has ordained, and to look instead to those that are foreign or forbidden. Deeply embedded within the sinful human heart is a desire for more than God has mandated, for other than what God has prescribed. Though God gave Adam and Eve knowledge of good, their sinful temptation was to add to it the knowledge of evil. When God held back nothing except the fruit of a single tree, they found themselves obsessed with that very one. Similarly, we may grow weary of entrusting ourselves to the ordinary ministry of the Word and veer instead into mysticism. We may grow discouraged in our ordinary prayers and search for new forms of communication with God. We may grow weary of worshipping in Christian community and pursue selfish worship.
Yet God means for us to commit ourselves to these activities, to trust that they are the means through which he accomplishes his work within us. His extraordinary work is achieved through ordinary means. Thus, we must not only make use of the means of grace but trust them. We must trust they are God’s appointed means to promote zeal for godliness, to foster godliness, and to preserve godliness to the end.
God’s means of grace are the Word, prayer, and fellowship. These, according to John MacArthur, are the “instruments through which God’s Spirit graciously grows believers in Christlikeness and fortifies them in the faith and conforms them into the image of the Son.” Ryle describes them as “appointed channels through which the Holy Spirit conveys fresh supplies of grace to the soul and strengthens the work which He has begun in the inward man.” Let’s look briefly at each of them.
Word. The Word of God, the Bible, is God’s revelation to humanity—his revelation of himself, his character, and his works. It is his voice to the world. And it is through the Bible, more than any other means, that God sanctifies us. The Bible first reveals the gospel, which is “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16). We cannot be saved without it. Then it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” so that every Christian may be “complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). We cannot grow in godliness without it. Therefore, the Bible must be read, taught, absorbed, and applied. We must read it as individuals, families, and churches. Parents must teach it to their children, pastors to their congregations, Christians to their peers. We must meditate upon it, diligently and prayerfully seeking to understand it, and we must apply it, shaping our lives according to its every truth and every command. As Christians we are, and must always be, people of The Book.
Prayer. As the Bible is the means through which God speaks to humanity, prayer is the means through which we speak to God. Christians are to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), to make life a conversation in which we hear from God and speak in return, or in which we speak to God and hear in return. We are to offer prayers of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, intercession, and supplication. We are to pray privately, with our family, with our friends, and with our congregation, to pray both as individuals and gathered congregations. In certain seasons, we are to pray with fasting, specially consecrating ourselves to the work of prayer. As we pray, God blesses us with increased trust in him, increased fellowship with him, and increased confidence in his character and works.
Fellowship. When we become Christians, we enter into a fellowship of believers that spans the earth and the ages. We grow in godliness in community, not isolation. This is why the author of Hebrews wrote, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (10:24-25). It is in Christian community that we read the Word and hear it preached (2 Timothy 4:2), that we join our voices together in prayer (Acts 4:24), that we sing praises to God (Colossians 3:16), that we bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), speak truth to one another (Ephesians 4:25), and encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11). It is here that we celebrate the ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and baptism, and here that we experience the blessings of church membership and the tough love of church discipline. The Bible knows nothing of Christians who willfully separate themselves from Christian fellowship. It is a means through which God pours out his sanctifying grace upon us and through us.
Ray Ortlund points out that the means of grace are God’s answer to questions every Christian must ask: “How do I, as a believer, access the grace of the Lord for my many needs? Where do I go, what do I do, to connect with the real help He gives to sinners and sufferers here in this world?” We access the Lord’s grace and receive the Lord’s help through these ordinary means. We cannot expect to grow or thrive apart from them. But we can confidently expect to grow and thrive in proportion to the degree we commit ourselves to them, for God has ordained them for this very purpose.
Thus, the first rule of godliness is trust the ordinary means of grace. We must take full advantage of the disciplines God provides, and we must ensure we do not lose our confidence that God can and will work through such ordinary means. It is his desire and delight to do so.
The “8 Rules for Growing in Godliness” are drawn from the work of Thomas Watson. Here are the words that inspired this article: “Be diligent in the use of all means that may promote godliness, Luke xiii. 24. ‘Strive to enter in at the strait gate:’ what is purpose without pursuit? When you have made your estimate of godliness, prosecute those mediums which are most expedient for obtaining it.”